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Beyond ‘test-optional’: Some ‘test-free’ colleges drop the SAT and ACT entirely

Students on campus at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.
Students on campus at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. (Caltech)

The California Institute of Technology attracts a certain kind of student, driven to explore science and engineering at the highest levels. It tells prospective applicants mathematics is “the bedrock of all coursework” at the school. More than 90 percent who apply are turned away. Most who enrolled in recent years had perfect or near-perfect math scores on the SAT or ACT.

But Caltech won’t even consider those tests in the selection of its next two entering classes. It is in the vanguard of a small but growing movement to eliminate the ACT and SAT from admission decisions. The immense educational disruptions of the novel coronavirus pandemic, especially shortages of seats at testing centers, have fueled the development.

Others experimenting with this approach include the University of California at Berkeley and some other UC campuses, Reed College in Oregon, the California State University System and Washington State University. Catholic University, in D.C., said this year it will omit test scores in admissions from now on.

These schools are taking a more radical stance than the “test-optional” movement, which allows applicants to choose whether to send scores. Instead, these schools are declaring themselves “test-blind” or “test-free.”

Nikki Kahealani Chun, director of undergraduate admissions for Caltech, said the 2,200-student school in Pasadena has never focused as much on tests as its ultracompetitive reputation would suggest. She said Caltech has pondered the value of the SAT and ACT for years as it seeks to diversify a student body of about 940 undergraduates. Now it has announced a two-year moratorium on using the tests, enabling the school to assess whether the scores are worthwhile or even necessary.

“I know it won’t cripple the process” to remove the tests from deliberations, Chun said. The school scrutinizes high school transcripts, teacher recommendations, essays and student activities. Caltech’s goal, Chun said, is “seeing the scientist/researcher, the quantitative thinker, in the whole of their application.” Raw talent matters more than stellar scores. “Sometimes students don’t even recognize they have it,” she said.

Testing chaos this year underscores how much colleges and applicants nationwide have long relied on the ACT and SAT. Colleges pay the testing agencies for names and addresses of high school students to fuel marketing and recruiting. They also use scores when reviewing thousands or tens of thousands of applications. Prospective students, meanwhile, often take the tests two or more times in quest of scores that can help them stand out from the crowd and compete for scholarships. Affluent families pay the test-preparation industry large fees in hopes of giving their children an edge.

But hundreds of colleges dropped testing requirements at least temporarily after the coronavirus pandemic forced widespread closures last spring of SAT and ACT testing centers.

Colleges are ditching required admission tests over covid-19. Will they ever go back?

Even in the summer and fall, demand for testing has far outstripped supply in many parts of the country. The agencies that oversee the two tests are racing to expand availability, but they acknowledge that many high school seniors are having trouble finding a seat in a testing center.

The College Board, which owns the SAT, disclosed last month that more than half of the 334,000 students who had registered for a Sept. 26 session were unable to take the test because of pandemic restrictions. Given the upheaval, the College Board has urged colleges to be as flexible as possible in their requirements.

The Ivy League and many other highly selective private colleges and universities suspended testing requirements for classes entering in fall 2021, although they made clear that applicants may still submit scores. Prominent public flagships such as the universities of Maryland and Virginia took the same step. That added momentum to a test-optional movement that had been growing already for several years.

But when colleges say they are test-optional, high school seniors and their parents often don’t believe it. This year there has been a frenzy among certain college-bound students, especially the affluent, to find a testing seat anywhere. That might mean a long drive or an interstate flight.

One high school senior in Palos Verdes, Calif., who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of damaging his admission prospects, said his first shot at taking the SAT was canceled in March. He was unable to find a testing site in subsequent months in Southern California. “I was disappointed,” he said. “I’d been prepping for a while.” As a last resort, his mother booked a plane ticket for him to Tennessee so he could sit for the test there in September. He decided it wasn’t worth the trouble. He expects to apply to a test-optional Ivy League university. But he is also likely to apply to UC campuses that don’t consider scores.

“Every school should go test-blind,” this student said. “It’s most fair to all the kids, especially the lower-income kids that have no chance to go to another state and take the test.”

In May, UC’s governing Board of Regents rocked the college admissions world with a decision to phase out the ACT and SAT. The board voted unanimously to adopt a test-optional policy for the system for 2021 and 2022, and then a test-blind admission policy for in-state applicants in 2023 and 2024.

UC takes huge step toward dropping SAT and ACT from admissions

Some campuses have accelerated the shift. UC-Irvine, UC-Santa Barbara and UC-Santa Cruz have announced they will not consider SAT or ACT scores for fall 2021 admission. UC-Berkeley has said the same, although it will assess results that applicants might submit from other, non-required exams on specific academic subjects. A California judge recently ordered UC to halt use of the ACT and SAT at all of its campuses in a ruling on a lawsuit that alleged the system’s testing policy discriminates against students with disabilities. But an appellate court issued a temporary stay of that order while it reviews the matter.

Test-optional schools face a challenge: How to guard against bias toward applicants who choose not to submit scores? Olufemi Ogundele, UC-Berkeley’s director of undergraduate admissions, said excluding the SAT and ACT eliminates that issue. “I wanted to ensure that we were evaluating students in an equitable manner,” he said.

Until this year, the ACT and SAT were fixtures in selective college admissions even as debate raged about their value. Proponents say the tests help identify hidden academic potential and provide a useful check against grade inflation. Critics say they have minimal utility in predicting college success and are unfairly tilted in favor of students with higher family income.

The scales of the ACT (maximum 36) and SAT (maximum 1600) are instantaneously recognized, giving the tests huge influence among students and colleges. Many test-optional schools find that a large majority of applicants continue to send scores.

Hampshire College, in Massachusetts, declared itself test-blind in 2014. But its position was a rarity. Now the movement has become established enough that U.S. News & World Report said in June it will no longer exclude from its annual college rankings schools that do not use standardized admission tests.

Priscilla Rodriguez, vice president of college readiness assessments for the College Board, said students from little-known high schools are often able to distinguish themselves through the SAT. Test-free colleges might overlook them, she said. “That’s where my worry kicks in.”

Janet Godwin, interim chief executive of ACT, said she is not too concerned about the test-free movement. “We’re going to have to watch and see how it plays out, honestly.”

At Catholic University, Christopher Lydon has seen enough.

The vice president for enrollment management and marketing at the D.C. university with close ties to the Vatican said years of data from test-optional admissions have convinced him the SAT and ACT aren’t needed at all.

Going forward, Catholic won’t consider scores in selecting students or awarding scholarships. The pandemic provided the right moment to make an announcement that Lydon hopes will ease the minds of prospective students.

“It’s us doing our small share to ratchet down anxiety,” he said.

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